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Black Pepper's Hidden Flavors

By Cook's Illustrated Published January 2015

Don’t skip early additions of pepper when a recipe calls for it—the spice will infuse the dish with a noticeable depth.

We know that pepper’s floral aroma comes from fleeting volatile compounds—during a long cooking time, they will dissipate. Yet most classic recipes for peposo (see Tuscan-Style Beef Stew in related content) call for adding large amounts of peppercorns to the beef at the start of the long simmer. We wondered if they were really making any worthwhile flavor contribution.

To find out, we simmered 4 teaspoons of whole peppercorns in 4 cups of water for 2 1/2 hours and then strained off the peppercorns. Tasters described the resulting infusion as “earthy,” “meaty,” and “tea-like.” Further testing confirmed that cracked peppercorns will contribute the same stable flavor compounds to the stew during the long simmer but will release them more efficiently. For that reason (and because ground pepper in such high quantities created an unappealing muddy, gritty texture), we settled on using cracked over whole.

THE BOTTOM LINE: While pepper’s most recognizable flavors will dissipate during a long cooking time, don’t skip early additions of pepper when a recipe calls for it. It will infuse the dish with a noticeable depth.

PEPPERCORN TEA? During a long simmer, peppercorns will infuse a liquid with an earthy, tea-like flavor.